One of the best ways to grow your photography is by working on a personal photography project. As a professional photographer, I am always working on personal projects. It’s a way to keep myself inspired, and to feel challenged to grow. It’s also a great way to keep my portfolio fresh, try out new ideas, and grow my vision as a photographer.
Shooting a place more than one time gives you the opportunity to capture the place in the perfect light. I had visited this part of the Oregon coast more than a dozen times before the perfect scene appeared.
In this article, I will share with you:
- What is a personal photography project?
- What’s the value of working on personal projects?
- What makes a good project?
- How to be successful
- Ideas for personal photography projects of your own
What is a personal photography project?
I define a personal photography project as choosing a subject to shoot over and over again over time. It can be as simple as shooting your kid’s sporting event every weekend, photographing an intriguing building near your home six times, or creating a series of portraits of your friends.
I photographed about 60 miles along the northern Oregon coast over a period of six months. I created a route that I drove whenever I could. By shooting the same place over and over again, I was able to truly capture the personality of the places.
2 – What’s the value of personal projects?
Some photographers are reluctant to shoot the same subject over and over again, but by photographing it more than once, it gives you some great opportunities to grow as a photographer.
- It gives you the chance to get it right. Have you ever said, “I wish I would have done X better?” By going back and shooting something more than one time, you create the opportunity to analyze your mistakes, and go back and do it again. In this exercise, you shoot one day, analyze what you can do better, then tweak your shooting until you learn to nail it every time.
- It gives you some structure. When you have some free time, you don’t have to wonder what you are going to shoot. If you have committed to photographing the City Hall in your town six times, you can just go shoot it. On the other side of the coin, you can also put your shoots on your calendar weeks, or months, ahead of time.
A different mood of Cannon Beach, Oregon.
A Project could look like this – Shoot City hall at:
- Morning light
- Afternoon light
- Golden hour
- With the moon
- On a sunny day
- On a cloudy day
- On a rainy day
- On a Snowy day
- During each of Spring, Winter, Fall, and Summer
Can you begin to see the many opportunities, and how to create different pictures of just one thing?
I was fascinated by this lone tree growing out of a huge rock near Garlibaldi, Oregon, but I wanted to get it with a beautiful sky.
It took many evenings of watching for the perfect sunset, but the photo was well worth it.
Once you nail the technical part of a situation, you can challenge yourself to do something really different. This is the point the great photos come in!
The great photos don’t come when you are trying to figure out how to focus your camera, use your flash, or what is the right exposure or camera angle. Once you’ve got all that nailed, the real creativity begins! That’s when the great pictures happen. Here’s an example:
This was my first glamour shoot. I just practiced finding the perfect window light in my studio. And, as a journalistic photographer, I rarely do any retouching, but this subject offered the opportunity to pull out some new retouching tools, and also reminded me to pose the subject in such a way to hide skin imperfections.
I fell in love with the work of a glamour photographer, Sue Bryce. She does beautiful work and doesn’t use studio lighting, she uses window light in a very sophisticated way. I decided to emulate her work by studying her technique. I had never studied glamour photography, so not only would the lighting be a challenge, but the posing would be too. Here’s what I did:
- I studied her technique, watched some YouTube videos, and took detailed notes.
- I practiced posing myself in front of the mirror.
- I did some tests with window light in my studio to find the best times of day to shoot, and to decide what kind of reflectors, props, and backdrops I needed.
- I found a few make-up artists who wanted to build their portfolio, and offered to work with me for prints.
- I scheduled several friends for shoots.
This was my second shoot. I practiced using a different kind of light, a little bit harder with more fill.
I also had the chance to work with posing and hands. It felt awkward to me, and I didn’t really get the subject to do what I wanted her to. It was time to go back to the mirror and practice with my own hands, then create language that would help my subject move into those poses.
This shoot went much better. I was learning, developing skills, having fun, and building my confidence in this new world of glamour photography.
By my fourth subject, I had learned how to direct my subject into a pose, and had a great feel for window light.
I had a few new pieces for my portfolio, not to mention a few happy friends with prints.
Let’s back up a few steps and review some of the ideas we’ve touched on so far.
3 – What makes a good photo project?
- Have an objective, a goal. Be clear on your outcome. It can be to master a new skill, to create a series of prints, or to make a calendar as a gift.
- Select a subject that you can return to over and over again.
- Choose something you are really interested in, and passionate about. For ideas, think about the activities you and your family are involved in. Would any of your hobbies make a good project? Are there places you love to visit or photograph?
- Find something to shoot within 10 or 20 minutes of your home.
- Commit to something that either happens on a regular basis at a scheduled time, or a place you can just show up and shoot anytime. For example, a ballet class that happens every week or a favorite park, botanical garden, or lake.
- Choose a subject with a variety of visual possibilities.
- Choose a subject with a learning goal, or end product in mind. You might want to learn more about light, or shooting in manual mode, or photographing people.
The Capitol Building in Washington, DC is stunning at night, and I wanted to capture the full moon rising behind it. This was the sixth night I made a trip to the monument. Persistence paid off.
Several years ago, while living in Washington, DC, I chose to shoot the monuments with a full moon. Why was this a good project? Let’s look at the checklist above and compare
- I love documenting history, enjoy being out in the evenings taking pictures at night, and I always feel a sense of wonder seeing the Washington, DC monuments.
- I wanted to create a set of prints that I could share and offer to my corporate clients.
- Getting to the monuments was easy for me.
- I could write the full moon dates in my calendar months ahead of time and keep my schedule clear. (Although I did get strange looks when I told friends I couldn’t join them for dinner because it was a full moon!)
- There are lots of monuments to photograph within walking distance.
I loved having something on my calendar to shoot. It provided some structure, and gave me something to shoot for several months without having to come up with a new idea. And, now I have a beautiful collection of photograph for my portfolio.
This is the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC with the Washington Monument in the background. Committing to shoot a personal project is fun, rewarding, and builds your self-confidence.
4 – How to be successful
- Make a commitment and write out the whys of doing the project.
- Find an accountability partner, a coach, a class, or a photo group, to share your progress.
- Put the time commitments on the calendar. Treat this as a new ritual. Plan the time and treat it as sacred.
5 – Ideas for your own personal photography projects
Here are some ideas to get you started on your own personal project.
- Find a photographer or a style you love and try to mimic that style. I fell in love with Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings and her use of color. Ultimately, studying her art led me to creating these photographs.
- Shoot the full moon every month for six months. I chose to shoot the monuments in Washington, DC with a full moon and created a beautiful series of art prints.
- Photograph a local park 10 different times, at different times of day. This is a simpler version of my Oregon Coast project.
- Shoot a local landmark at all times of the day. It could be a building, for example the City Hall, a mountain, or a river. This project will give you an opportunity to learn about the quality of light at different times of days, the right angles, and it’s simple! Buildings and mountains are always there for you.
- Shoot a kid’s sporting event every weekend. This will help you refine your skills with stopping action and learning focus.
- Make portraits of your relatives and create a beautiful coffee table as a Christmas gift for the family. A great way to take care of that holiday gift list, as well as learn more about photographing people and developing a style of your own.
- Photograph pets. Pets can be a real challenge. It will be an opportunity to learn about capturing action as well as learning about light.
Shooting projects is an amazing way to grow your portfolio and your self-confidence. Do you have an idea for a project? Share it with me in the comment section below, I’d love to hear about it or see your images.